In the wake of the 15 January attack on a hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, hotels across the West African region, from Dakar to N’Djamena, are strengthening security, adding armed guards and increasing cooperation with the local authorities as a pair of high-profile attacks have exposed the growing Islamist threat to foreign travellers.
On Friday 15 January, al-Qaeda fighters killed thirty people at a hotel and restaurant in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The assaults, which was the country’s first militant attack on such a scale, came just two months after Islamist militants killed twenty people at a Radisson Blu Hotel in neighbouring Bamako, the capital of Mali. Despite intelligence agencies and security experts warning that further such attacks may occur in West Africa, both incidents have demonstrated that militant groups operating in the region are expanding their areas of operations. Furthermore, both attacks likely mark a new strategy by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies, including al-Murabitoun.
In both instances, the attacks targeted establishments that were popular with Westerners, dozens of whom were taken hostage. Witnesses at the scene of the attack in Ouagadougou also reported that the gunmen singled out white foreigners for execution. In the wake of this growing threat, high-end hotels in major cities across the region have been quick to react. Analysts have warned that Abidjan and Dakar, the largest cities in Ivory Coast and Senegal, are viewed as particularly attractive to Islamist militants because of their large Western expatriate population coupled with a stead flow of tourists and business travellers. However analysts have noted that they have no information on specific threats in either city. This however has not prevented local officials from taking the necessary precautions. At the Sofitel Hotel Ivoire, which is one of Ivory Coast’s most luxurious hotels, uniformed police officers were posted around the grounds. Furthermore, the use of metal detectors and body searches have been increased while guard dogs have been used in order to help patrol the lobby. Meanwhile in Senegal, gendarmes have been deployed at roundabouts and on major streets in neighbourhoods that are popular with Westerners. Well before the attacks in Ouagadougou, Dakar’s Radisson Blu installed additional cameras both inside and outside, ordered vehicle barriers and increased security personnel. According to the hotel’s general manager, Jorgen Jorgensen, “of course, there is always a risk, but I can assure you that we have in place all the precautions to control the building in the most professional way.” In the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, which was hit by deadly attacks by Islamist militants in June and July, the government has called upon hotels to carry out car and body searches as well as increase their collaboration with local authorities.
On 15 January, Sierra Leone officials confirmed a death of Ebola, just hours after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the latest West Africa outbreak over.
According to an Ebola test centre spokesman, tests on a person who died in northern Sierra Leone proved positive. Sidi Yahya Tunis disclosed that the death occurred earlier this week and that the patient had died in the Tonkolili district, adding he had travelled there from Kambia, which is located close to the border with Guinea. The victim was a 22-year-old female student. According to district medical officer Augustine Junisa, “the victims was taken ill when she was on holidays in Bamoi Luma and was taken to Magburaka, where her relatives took her to the government hospital for medical attention…Three days later she died at home and her death was reported to the hospital officials and initial swap test was taken which proved positive.” Sources have reported that health officials are now urgently seeking those who had come into contact with the victim.
Sierra Leone was declared free of the virus on 7 November 2015, and the region as a whole was cleared when Liberia was pronounced Ebola-free on 14 January. While the WHO has warned that flare-ups are expected, Friday’s announcement of a new case in the region is a setback for the area. Already, ten other flare-ups have taken place in areas where the spread of Ebola was thought to have ended, effectively raising new questions about WHO procedures in assessing whether the epidemic was really over. On Friday, the UN Health agency reported that Sierra Leone’s government was moving rapidly in order to contain the new threat, noting however that it was not immediately clear how the 22-year-old woman may have contracted Ebola as all known transmission chains in that country were halted in November.
Timeline of Ebola Epidemic in West Africa
Below are key dates in the latest Ebola epidemic, which is the worst outbreak of the haemorrhagic fever, which first surfaced in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to the latest toll released by the WHO, the epidemic has left more than 11,300 dead, mainly in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Almost 29,000 cases were reported during the outbreak.
Epidemic Starts in Guinea:
- December 2013: A one-year-old baby dies in southern Guinea and is later identified as “patient zero.” The virus remains localized until February 2014, when a care worker in a neighbouring province dies.
Ebola Begins to Spread in West Africa:
- 31 March 2014 – Two cases are confirmed by the WHO in Liberia, while on 26 May, Sierra Leone confirms its first case, to be followed in late July by Nigeria, in August by Senegal and in October by Mali. Senegal and Nigeria are declared free of Ebola in October 2014 while Mali is declared Ebola-free in January 2015.
Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone Cut Off From The World:
- 30 May 2015 – According to the aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Ebola is “out of control.” The three worst-hit countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – declare measures that include states of emergency and quarantines. Many neighbouring states close their borders with the affected countries.
A ‘Public Health Emergency’:
- 8 August 2014 – The WHO declares Ebola a “public health emergency of international concern.” Four days later, it authorizes the use of experimental drugs in order to fight Ebola after an ethical debate. That day, a Spanish missionary infected in Liberia dies in Madrid, becoming the first European fatality.
Death in the US:
- 30 September 2014 – A Liberian man is hospitalized in the US state of Texas, effectively becoming the first Ebola infection to be diagnosed outside of Africa. He dies on 8 October.
- 6 October 2014 – A Spanish nurse in a Madrid hospital becomes the first person to be infected outside Africa. She is treated and released on 19 October.
Ebola Begins a Halting Retreat:
- 22 February 2015 – Liberia says it is lifting nationwide curfews and re-opening borders, as the epidemic begins to retreat.
- 26 February 2015 – The US ends its military mission in West Africa, where it deployed 2,800 soldiers in order to fight against Ebola. Soldiers were mainly deployed to Liberia.
Closing in on a Vaccine:
- 10 July 2015 – International donors pledge US $3.4 billion in order to help stamp out Ebola.
- 31 July 2015 – The WHO says an Ebola vaccine provided 100-percent protection in a field trial in Guinea, suggesting that the world is “on the verge of an effective Ebola vaccine.”
Hardest-hit Countries Emerge from the Epidemic:
- 9 May and 3 September 2015 – Liberia is declared Ebola-free by the WHO after no new cases were recorded for 42 days. However the declarations are followed by a resurgence of the virus. On 4 December, Liberia releases from hospital its last two known Ebola cases.
- 7 November 2015 – Sierra Leone is declared free of the outbreak by the WHO.
- 29 December – The WHO declares Guinea’s Ebola outbreak over, six weeks after the recovery of its last known patient, a three-week old girl who was born with the virus.
In the wake of Friday’s deadly terrorist attack in Burkina Faso, the West African country and neighbouring Mali have agreed to work together to counter the growing threat of Islamic militants in West Africa by sharing intelligence and conducting joint security patrols.
According to officials, the prime ministers of Mali and Burkina Faso met on Sunday, just two days after al-Qaeda militants seized the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou, opened fire on a restaurant and attacked another hotel nearby, killing at least 28 people from at least seven countries and wounding fifty others. The assault, which was claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) just hours later, follows a similar raid that occurred in November 2015 on a luxury hotel in the Malian capital Bamako. That attack resulted in the death of twenty people, including citizens from China, Russia and the United States. In a statement on the attack in Burkina Faso, AQIM identified three attackers and called the targeted hotel and surrounding areas “one of the most dangerous dens of global espionage in the west of the African continent,” warning that “this blessed operation is but a drop in the sea of global jihad.”
On Sunday, Burkina Faso’s prime minister Paul Kaba Thieba disclosed that “there is a very strong political will on the part of the two states to combine our efforts to fight terrorism.” Thieba and his Malian counterpart Modibo Keita visited the outside of the Splendid Hotel on Sunday, where bullet holes and a charred exterior offered reminders of Friday evening’s attack. Tight security was in place around the hotel while inside, Burkinabe and French security officials were conducting an investigation. Security forces in Burkina Faso retook the 146-room hotel on Saturday after firefights with militants, at least three of whom were killed. Survivors have since reported that militants targeted white victims at the hotel and at the restaurant, both of which were popular among westerners.
According to provisional figures released by the Burkinabe government, amongst the dead were eight Burkinabe’s, four Canadians, three Ukrainians, two Portuguese, two French, two Swiss and one Dutch citizen. Seven bodies are yet to be identified and the list is subject to change. On Sunday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated that six Canadians had been killed. Also on Sunday, Italy’s foreign ministry reported that a nine-year-old Italian boy and his mother were killed in the assault on Cappuccino, the restaurant attacked opposite the Splendid Hotel. The boy and his mother were the son and wife of the restaurant owner.
While the exact details of the cooperation between Burkina Faso and Mali currently remain unclear, patrols and the sharing of intelligence mark an intent by the two countries to prevent the spread of militancy as AQIM and others expand operations in the region beyond their usual reach. While over the past several years, Islamic militants have used northern Mali as a base, recently, they have staged a number of attacks in other parts of the country, moving further south and prompting concerns that they are expanding their area of operation. Burkina Faso’s authorities are now concerned that its long desert border with Mali could become a transit point for militants.
The 20 November 2015 attack on a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako killed nineteen people and highlighted Mali’s ongoing security concerns. In the wake of the attack, three terrorist groups known to operate regionally claimed responsibility. Amongst them is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Many experts have indicated that the attack was partly aimed at asserting the global terror network’s relevance as it continues to face an unprecedented challenge from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group for leadership of the global jihadi movement. It came exactly a week after IS carried out several attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people in what is the bloodies attack on France in decades. That attack, which is also the deadliest to take place on the European continent in the last ten years, also marked the first time that suicide bombers were used to carry in Europe, it has also prompted the questioning of security across the European Union and the ongoing migration crisis. What is evident however is that in recent years, al-Qaeda has to a certain degree been eclipsed by the IS group and its self-styled caliphate. As IS continues to expand in Syria and Iraq, and garners further allegiance from terrorist groups operating in other regions of the world, such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram, al-Qaeda is attempting to remind the world that the movement founded by Osama bin Laden continues to pose a serious threat.
IS began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, a local affiliate that battled American troops and carried out deadly attacks which targeted the country’s Shi’ite majority. However from the beginning there were tensions between the local group, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and al-Qaeda’s central leadership. In a 2005 letter, which was obtained and publicized by US intelligence officials, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, objected to al-Zarqawi’s brutality towards Shi’ite civilians, stating that it would turn Muslims against the group. While Al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, he is seen by man as being the founder of IS, which continues to use brutal tactics.
In 2013, IS leader Abu Bakh al-Baghdadi renamed the group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and proclaimed his authority in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria. Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, rejected the move and swore allegiance to al-Zawahri, who ordered al-Baghdadi to confine his operations to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi however refused and by 2014, al-Nusra Front and IS were battling each other across northern Syria. This split was felt across the world, with al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Northern Africa remaining loyal to al-Zawahri while others choosing to pledge their allegiance to IS.
While both al-Qaeda and IS want to end Western influence in the Middle east, and want to unite Muslims under a transnational caliphate that is governed by a strict version of Islamic law, both groups are bitterly divided over tactics. Bin Laden believed that attacking the “far enemy” of the US would weaken its support for the “near enemy” of Arab autocracies and rally Muslims to overthrow them. Under al-Zawahri, local al-Qaeda affiliates have sought to exploit post-Arab Spring chaos by allying with other insurgents and tribes and by cultivating local support in places such as Syria and Yemen, where they provide social services. For bin Laden, who was killed in a US raid in Pakistan in 2011, as well as his successor al-Zawahri, the establishment of a caliphate was a vaguely defined end goal.
IS however began seizing and holding territory in Syria and Iraq and later forming affiliates across the Middle East, and into Africa. In the summer of 2014, IS declared a caliphate, and deemed the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital. Al-Baghdadi has since claimed to be the leader of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, however an overwhelming majority have rejected his ideas and brutal tactics.
In the wake of the 20 November deadly attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, competing claims released by terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Macina Liberation Front and al-Murabitoun, highlight the number of militant Islamist groups that operate in Mali, a country that has a weak central government and vast ungoverned spaces.
While most of the groups that operate in the West African country trace their origins to al-Qaeda’s North African branch, memberships amongst these groups over the years has become very fluid between them. What is important to note, however, is that for the most part, they have not allied themselves with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which is al-Qaeda’s main rival for dominance of the world’s jihadist movements. While other terrorist groups, which operate on the African continent, such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram, have declared allegiance to IS, others, such as Somali-based al-Shabaab, have seen themselves splinter, with some leaders choosing to remain with al-Qaeda while others opting to pledge allegiance to IS.
In 2012, Mali became a focal point for jihadis groups, when for nine months, Ansar Dine, which is composed mainly of ultraconservative Tuareg tribesmen, and other Islamic extremists took over northern Mali. They were later pushed out by a French-led military intervention in 2013. In the wake of France launching Operation Barkhane in 2014, radical groups operating in northern Mali have suffered heavy losses, as French troops have targeted the groups in their havens in northern Mali, as well as in Niger and along the Libyan border. Throughout this year, radical groups have expanded their operations, moving from the desert regions of northern Mali, and into more urban towns and cities in the central and southern areas of the country.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is al-Qaeda’s North African Branch. It expanded south into Mali under pressure from Algerian security forces in the early 2000s. The group went on to make a fortune in smuggling and ransoming hostages. Under militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the group recruited disaffected Malians and Mauritanians and expanded its presence within the Sahara desert region.
The group, which is led by Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghali, emerged in 2012 as a religious alternative to the largely secular Tuareg separatists operating in northern Mali. Ansar Dine allied itself with al-Qaeda and took over much of the north before being driven back into the desert by the French army.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which was founded in 2011, has been described as a splinter group from AQIM. The group has carried out attacks across West Africa, including the kidnapping of aid workers and Algerian diplomats. During the Tuareg uprising in northern Mali, the group briefly controlled the northern Malian city of Gao.
Founded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar in 2013, it effectively combined MUJAO with Belmokhtar’s own Masked Brigade and completed his shift to a more Saharan-focused entity. The group claimed an attack on a Bamako restaurant, which killed five in March of this year. While earlier this year, there were reports that Belmokhtar was killed by a US airstrike, these claims have been denied both by his terrorist group and al-Qaeda. There have also been unconfirmed reports that others now lead the group and that it has pledged allegiance to the IS.
Macina Liberation Front
While this group is relatively new, appearing in January 2015, it has proven to be deadly. Militants have targeted Malian security forces in the central regions of Mopti and Segou. Many of its members are believed to have formerly been with MUJAO and are members of the Peul ethnic group.
While Boko Haram has not carried out any attacks in Mali, the Nigerian-based terrorist group poses a threat to the region, as it has carried out deadly attacks in the Lake Chad area, which includes Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Boko Haram has expanded its aims from wanting to impose strict Sharia law in Nigeria’s northeastern region to recreating an ancient Islamic caliphate across the borders into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The group has pledged allegiance to IS.
Ansaru broke away from Boko Haram and has since been blamed for the kidnappings of foreigners in northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon.